In his interminably long, but moving Atlantic essay documenting our nation's undeniable history of discrimination against African-Americans, author Ta-Nehisi Coates got to the heart of his pro-reparations argument on page 51: "What I'm talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe." Instead, he called for a "national reckoning" about this stain on America's history.
I've got nothing against having such a conversation, especially at a time when white nationalists are rearing their ugly heads once again. Americans do need to understand that such discrimination didn't just vanish in the distant past—and that everything wasn't made right by the Civil War and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Vast inequalities, injustices and prejudices remain, which are easily documented through a variety of economic and other measures.
But approving tens of billions of dollars or more in payouts will indeed be viewed as bribes and far worse, which will only make the national reckoning Coates seeks that much harder to achieve. In fact, his argument reminds me of that old quip: When someone says that something's not about the money, you can be sure it really is about the money. Nothing shuts down a dialogue more than a fight about who gets their share of a large stack of other people's cash.
Coates is wrong for another big reason, too. Reparations are not supposed to be about redemption, reckonings or reconciliation. We can try those things—and address glaring problems, such as inequities in our nation's criminal-justice system—without running up another year's worth of public debt. The only possible rationale for paying reparations is to help African-Americans close the financial gap they have with other Americans. Yet the idea fails on those terms, as well.
Advocates for this proposal are far less persuasive at explaining how reparations would permanently level the playing field than they are at detailing some of the ugliest parts of our nation's history. These folks rarely even tout a specific policy (What type of payment? Who is eligible? How much?). For instance, the New York Times' conservative-leaning columnist David Brooks this month announced that he now embraces Coates' position. Brooks' column is eloquent, but his arguments are ephemeral.
"We're a nation coming apart at the seams," Brooks wrote. "The African-American experience is somehow at the core of this fragmentation—the original sin that hardens the heart, separates Americans from one another and serves as model and fuel for other injustices." He agrees that "reparations are a drastic policy and hard to execute" but argues that "the very act of talking about and designing them heals a wound and opens a new story."
That's as close as Brooks gets to substance. Even his premise—that talking about payouts will help heal this long-festering wound—is way off base. How often do drastic public policies lead to amelioration rather than another round of vicious cultural battles? How naïve can a columnist be to champion such a controversial idea without exploring how it might play out?
Most reparations proposals range from creating new social programs to giving out bonds to newborn African-Americans to providing direct cash handouts to each adult African-American. It's not hard to predict the political battles and ugly social-media flurry that would follow. The first idea would not satisfy those who demand redress—and the other two ideas will tear the nation asunder.
Officials will engage in bean-counting to determine who is eligible for payments. How many drops of blood prove a person's compensable lineage? Suddenly, everyone will unearth some African heritage. Do recent immigrants from Africa qualify? Imagine the lawsuits over DNA, the bitter feelings, the anger that racists will exploit. How likely will this solve anything rather than become a starting point for escalating demands? We know how things work in America.
Other hyphenated Americans will lobby for their share of public money, too, given the demonstrable discrimination against members of their group. White Americans whose families arrived after the segregation era will wonder why they must pay for the sins of other people's ancestors. Instead of solving problems, everyone will fight over money. It will end up only being about the money. This is not how to help a nation reckon with its past.
As National Review's Kevin Williamson noted, reparations are embraced by Democratic presidential campaigns, which means it will instantly become a partisan issue. Forbes columnist Kyle Smith adds that people who receive windfalls (e.g., winning the lottery) have no better long-term financial prospects than those who never hit the jackpot. If the goal is to close a financial gap, then this won't do it.
Sure, let's have a debate, a reckoning or whatever that sparks change in some public policies. But it's hard to believe that smart people such as Coates and Brooks don't understand the tinderbox that their idea would ignite.
This column was first published in the Orange County Register.